the politics and morality of the ban on Armenian Genocide denial in France

In this post, I want: to think about whether French laws against genocide denial are motivated by politics, economics, or morality; to analyse official French and Turkish rhetoric; to review a few examples of reaction in the British press; and to highlight one absurd instance of local implementation of a non-existent law.  Warning: it is tl;dr – more than 2,000 words.  (At the end, I have summarised the past decade of Franco-Turkish diplomatic dispute over history law/hate law.)

[Update: France has passed the law against denial of crimes against humanity.]

After ten years of wrangling over the Armenian Genocide, between and within the parliaments, governments and publics of France and Turkey, today the French Senate will vote on a law to criminalise the denial of genocide.

Politics, economics, or principle?

Critics accuse the French National Assembly of playing politics by tabling bills concerning the Armenian Genocide – either to pull in Armenian French voters, or to push Turkey away from the European Union.

However, despite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan making the claim, and it being repeated everywhere as fact, the accusation of appealing to an Armenian French voting bloc is nonsense. As Erdoğan himself pointed out to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, ‘living in France are not only 500,000 Armenians, but also 500,000 Turks‘; so even if there were an Armenian voting bloc, there would also be a Turkish voting bloc, and they would cancel each other out.

It is equally possible to accuse the French Senate of playing politics by not passing the previous bill into law. The lower and upper chambers of the French parliament had recognised, and criminalised denial of, the Nazi Holocaust.  Both chambers had recognised the Armenian Genocide; and a cross-party consensus in the National Assembly had approved the criminalisation of denial; but the Senate refused to do so.

The majority of French politicians believe that denial of the Armenian Genocide is as factually wrong, and as morally wrong, as denial of the Nazi Holocaust. The Guardian‘s Paris correspondent, Angelique Chrisafis, reported French anger at ‘Turkish intimidation‘ of their country; but it has been effective. Politics – or economics – are ‘why’ the BBC’s then Paris correspondent, Clive Myrie, judged that ‘ultimately the bill will never become law’.

The constitution of bilateral relations

Holocaust denial has been illegal since 1990; nonetheless, the Law Commission of the French Senate advised that the criminalisation of Armenian Genocide denial would be ‘contrary to the constitution [contraire à la Constitution]‘.(1) A bill to criminalise genocide denial was blocked this way before, so it may be blocked this way again.  But if it is, it has implications for Holocaust denial as well as Armenian Genocide denial.

The French parliament/government/state cannot claim that the constitution allows a ban on Holocaust denial, but not on Armenian Genocide denial; it cannot argue that criminalisation of Armenian Genocide denial violates the constitution, but that criminalisation of Holocaust denial does not.

Still, as I noted before, it may not have moral principle and logical consistency foremost in its thoughts…

“I am becoming less and less supportive of making laws in Parliament regarding historic events,” [French Senate President] Jean-Pierre Bel said last week. Bel, a socialist politician, also added that he was worried about the direction of bilateral relations between Turkey and France “at a time when relations need to be strengthened.”

Candid camera

When is an ultimatum not an ultimatum? When it is clearly an ultimatum…

President Sarkozy stated: ‘Collective denial is even worse than individual denial’; ‘denial is not acceptable’; Turkey should ‘revisi[t] its history, loo[k] it in the face’. He said that ‘from 1915 to 2011, it seems to be enough (time) for reflection’; ‘it is not up to France to give an ultimatum to anyone’.  Then Sarkozy insisted that, ‘if Turkey did not make this “gesture of peace” and “step towards reconciliation”‘ France would consider criminalising Armenian Genocide denial.

There are three things wrong with that: first, it is an ultimatum; second, it makes any ban appear political rather than moral; and third, it is again contrary to the logic of the ban on Holocaust denial, because Germany has recognised the Holocaust, but France has nonetheless banned its denial.

(In a strangely comforting way, idiocy is international. In 2006, Turkey evidently considered the French attempt to limit speech ‘ironic’ given European pressure on Turkey to allow free speech.  Prime Minister Erdoğan showed his appreciation of irony by calling the French bill a ‘systematic lie machine‘, ‘entirely against the freedom of thought’.)

(Curiously, in 2007, Switzerland used its anti-racism legislation to prosecute denial of the Armenian Genocide. Demonstrating that the law is equal for all, the successfully-prosecuted criminal was Turkish Workers’ Party (İP (2)) leader Doğu Perinçek; but there have been no diplomatic incidents; and no innocents have been wrongfully imprisoned.)

Insulting people’s parents in international politics

In 2011, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insisted:

Those who will not be able to face their own history for having carried out colonialism for centuries, for treating foreigners as second-class people, do not have the right to teach Turkey a history lesson or call for Turkey to face its history. It will be very beneficial if France confronts its own history, particularly with African nations.

Prime Minister Erdoğan told France to ‘look at its own “dirty and bloody history” in Algeria and Rwanda’; and he warned that Turkey would tell the world about the ‘French atrocities that have been forgotten‘.

Erdoğan asserted that ‘[w]hat the French did in Algeria was genocide‘; that France ‘mercilessly massacred’ about 15% of the population during its 1945-1962 occupation; and that, ‘[i]f Mr Sarkozy doesn’t know there was a genocide, he can ask his father, Pal Sarkozy… who was a legionnaire in Algeria in the 1940s. I’m sure he has a lot to tell his son about the massacres committed by the French in Algeria.’

Pal Sarkozy pointed out that ‘I was never in Algeria. I didn’t get further than Marseille, I was in the [foreign] legion for four months’.

In fact, as the League of Human Rights (LDH) reported, a French court has fined a French citizen for denial of French war crimes in Algeria. General Paul Aussaresses had to pay €7,500 for ‘excusing/justifying [French] war crimes‘ in Algeria in his book, Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957. Each of his editors, Plon CEO Olivier Orban and Perrin CEO Xavier de Bartillat, had to pay €15,000.(3)  (Aussaresses is no longer a general either: France removed Aussaresses’s army rank and military honour.)

(Still, French education about French colonialism in Algeria has long been shameful.)

Comment is free, but facts are sacred

The reaction of the British press to the 2006 bill (recently recycled as a reaction to the 2011 bill) was embarrassingly ill-informed and poorly-thought-out.  I do not know where to begin. I do not want to waste anyone’s time in studying it, but I do want to correct it.

For instance, political commentator Agnès Catherine Poirier opined that,

the French left prefers catering for groups of clients, embracing cultural relativism. Truth and historical facts now apparently change according to who speaks and from where….

But we simply cannot legislate on how we should remember history, and France should certainly not be doing it on a Turkish issue.

The bill rejects the idea that truth is dependent upon the person and their perspective; the bill insists upon the reality of history, truth and facts. It is not a “left-wing” bill; it has cross-party support.

The most fundamental bases of human rights are human unity and solidarity; the denial of France’s right/duty to show solidarity is a denial of the existence of human rights. And it could not anyway be a “Turkish issue”, when somewhat by definition it involves Armenians, Assyrians, Arameans and Greeks (and others besides).

(Poirier has recently advised France to ‘leave the Armenian Genocide to the historians’.)

Journalist and editor Henry Porter opined that,

Quite apart from limiting free speech, and therefore legitimate and desirable debate on historical questions, the French are surely obliged to remember more distinctly, and more publicly, the collaboration of so many of their own people with the Nazi transport of Jews before starting on the business of criminalising remoter cases of denial?

…. France… continu[es] to regard its own wartime behaviour as somehow irreproachable.

And a historian of tyranny and freedom in Europe, Prof. Timothy Garton Ash, opined that,

If the French parliament passed a law making it a crime to deny the complicity of Vichy France in the deportation to the death camps of French Jews, I would still argue that this was a mistake, but I could respect the self-critical moral impulse behind it….

No one can legislate historical truth. In so far as historical truth can be established at all, it must be found by unfettered historical research, with historians arguing over the evidence and the facts, testing and disputing each other’s claims without fear of prosecution or persecution.

(Garton Ash has recently warned that ‘genocide has become a political brickbat‘ in France.)

France had passed a law making it a crime to deny French complicity and collaboration (or otherwise to deny the Holocaust); it had been law for sixteen years when Porter and Garton Ash wrote their comments.  Both the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations (UN) have affirmed that the French ban on Holocaust denial does not limit free speech or historical debate.  (Notably, the French bill to ban Armenian Genocide denial explicitly refers to the French law that bans Holocaust denial, so neither of them can have read any of the legislation that they commented upon.)

Prof. Garton Ash asked ‘[h]ow can we credibly criticise Turkey, Egypt or other states for curbing free speech… if we are doing ever more of it ourselves?’ Yet a free country cannot reject a good law because an unfree country has imposed a bad law. That way lies madness and absurdity (if not horror).

Thought crime

Assyrian-Greek American journalist Thea Halo rightly argued that ‘[f]orgetting the [other] Christians who were slaughtered is nearly as bad as denying it happened’(4). Halo decried

the mind-boggling omissions by the Armenian [sic] drafters of the [2006] bill, who make no mention of the co-victims of the Armenian genocide: the Pontic Greeks, who lost 353,000 out of their population of 700,000 in Turkey; and the Assyrians, who lost three-quarters of their population – some put the figure at 750,000….[; and] the other [one million slaughtered] Asia Minor Greeks.

At least according to French parliamentary records, the primary author of the 2006 bill was French deputy Didier Migaud.  (The primary author of the 2011 bill was also a French deputy, Valérie Boyer.)

One Armenian French deputy, Patrick Devedjian, did propose an amendment to the 2006 bill, to explicitly protect historical research:  ‘[t]hese regulations do not apply to scientific, university or scholarly research [[c]es dispositions ne s’appliquent pas aux recherches scolaires, universitaires ou scientifiques]’; but it was rejected.

Still, Halo’s initial sentiment was right.  Unfortunately, she went on to opine that ‘if the bill passes the upper house of the French parliament, perhaps we should first jail its Armenian [sic] drafters, as well as those who actively deny the other genocides’.

First, the authors of the bill(s) did not passively deny the genocide by omission.  They may have been entirely ignorant of the other victims. Assyrian Genocide historian Prof. David Gaunt has acknowledged the ‘very, very low level of [genocide scholars'] knowledge‘ of the Assyrian Genocide; so the general public cannot be blamed for their ignorance.

Otherwise, the authors of the bill(s) may have wanted to avoid precisely trying to write a complete list and missing one by accident; for example, the 2001 Taubira Law recognised the slave trade as a crime against humanity, but it was not mentioned in the bill either. [The bill did refer to the Taubira Law.]  Moreover, if Devedjian committed Assyrian Genocide (and African enslavement) denial-by-omission, then Halo committed Aramean Genocide and African enslavement denial-by-omission.

Second, to punish people for failing to explicitly recognise a genocide is to punish a (not-even-proven) thought crime.  It is impossible (or, at least, grossly immoral) to punish people, without evidence, for the suspected commission of a crime in the future.

Punishing children for crimes they have not committed

In 2009, despite the French bill against Armenian Genocide denial not being law, ‘Mustafa Doğan, a 13-year-old Turk, was suspended from a school in Nancy after insisting that there was no Armenian genocide’.

In the end, no-one looked good: Doğan’s family/community had taught him that the Armenian Genocide was a myth; his teacher had threatened Doğan with not graduating from secondary school; even after the Turkish child had correctly educated his French elders on French law, his headmaster Francis Vignola supported his teacher’s false use of a non-existent law; and Doğan said that ‘[e]ven if it did happen, they deserved it’.

Burak Bekdil

As a treat for anyone who made it to the end (even by skipping), here’s Turkish commentator Burak Bekdil’s contemplation of the question, ‘is there freedom of expression in France?’

A decade of diplomatic dispute

This is just a run-through of the back-and-forth over law and policy between France and Turkey between 2001 and 2011.

In brief

France recognised the Armenian Genocide in 2001; and, in 2004, it asked Turkey at least to acknowledge the ‘tragedy‘ of the Armenians’ deaths, but to no avail.

Then, in 2006, the French National Assembly (the lower house of the French parliament) voted to criminalise denial of the Armenian Genocide (unless Turkey allowed free public discussion of the events of 1915-1923). Turkey did not allow that discussion; but the French Senate (the upper house of the French parliament) rejected the bill.

Most recently, in 2011, the French National Assembly voted to criminalise denial of any recognised genocide, as incitement to hatred against the victims of that genocide (unless Turkey recognised the Armenian Genocide). Turkey did not recognise the genocide; so, on the 23rd of January 2012 (the day before the anniversary of the genocide), the French Senate will vote.

In detail

2001:

In 2001, the French parliament considered recognising the Armenian Genocide; the Turkish government warned of harm to Franco-Turkish relations; and the French National Assembly recognised the Armenian Genocide regardless.

Turkey’s National Security Council formally condemned the French decision; its Foreign Ministry withdrew its ambassador (for four months); and its institutions cancelled (some) contracts with French companies ‘because the foreign partners… were French’, and banned French companies from applying for (some) contracts.

While the Armenian president, Robert Kocharian, paid a friendly visit to France, the Armenian patriarch, Mesrob II, visited Turkish leaders and stated that he believed that ‘what happened… should be left t[o] historians‘.  (The Turkish Armenian community feared suffering for the Armenian diaspora’s activism.)

2004:

In 2004, France appealed to Turkey to fulfill its ‘duty to remember’ by acknowledging the ‘tragedy‘ of the Armenians’ deaths; but Turkey ignored the appeal.

2006:

In 2006, the French National Assembly considered criminalising denial of the Armenian Genocide, and the Turkish government warned of harm to Franco-Turkish relations.  The Turkish Armed Forces (temporarily) suspended cooperation with the French. That has serious consequences for others: the French and Turkish militaries serve together in peacekeeping missions, for example in the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Moreover, Turkish journalists warned of fueling Turkish xenophobia and nationalism; and the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, warned of (harm to EU-Turkish relations, and) ‘put[ting] in danger the efforts of all those in Turkey – intellectuals, historians, academics, authors – who truly want to develop an open and serious debate without taboos and for the sake of freedom of expression’.

(In 2006) Turkey evidently thought the French attempt to limit speech was ‘ironic’ given European pressure on Turkey to allow free speech.  However, Turkey then showed its limited appreciation of irony by calling the French bill a ‘systematic lie machine‘, and sincerely demanding free speech in France that it denies at home. Erdoğan also ‘said he would not engage in tit-for-tat measures’.

Then French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy promised the bill would be withdrawn if Turkey agreed: to establish ‘a bilateral commission’ with Armenia ‘to discuss their history’; to reopen the borders between Turkey and Armenia; and ‘to allow discussion of the “genocide” within Turkey‘.(5)

When the Senate voted (in 2007), by then President Sarkozy supported the bill to ban denial of the Armenian Genocide; but (in 2011) the Law Commission advised against it, and the Senate accepted the Commission’s advice and rejected the bill.

2011:

Then, in 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that, ‘[i]f Turkey d[id] not recognize the Armenian Genocide by the end of the year’, France would consider adopting ‘the Bill Criminalizing the Denial of the Armenian Genocide’.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told France to ‘look at its own “dirty and bloody history” in Algeria and Rwanda’; and said that Turkey would tell the world about ‘French atrocities that have been forgotten‘. (He also warned that Turkey would cut all state ties with France.)

In the end, the French parliament considered banning the denial of any recognised genocide (including the Armenian Genocide, as incitement to hatred against the victims of that genocide).  The Turkish government threatened political, economic and cultural reprisals.

When a ‘large majority’ of the French National Assembly passed the law, Turkey recalled its ambassador and froze all political, economic and military relations with France

Furthermore, Turkey accused France of genocide in Algeria. Eventually, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia insisted that ‘nobody has the right to make the blood of Algerians their business’, and Agence France-Presse paraphrased that Ouyahia ‘urged Turkey… to stop trying to make political capital out of France’s killing of thousands of Algerians during the colonial period’.

Then the Algerian Islamist opposition, Ennahda leader Fatah Rabiai and Social Movement for Peace leader Bouguerra Soltani, supported Turkey, and demanded recognition of and compensation for the Algerian Genocide.

2012:

On the 21st of January 2012, nearly 35,000 [15,000] Turks from France and other European countries were ‘bused into Paris’ to protest against the ‘Shame Law’. Unfortunately, no-one reported when they would be bused into Ankara to demand ‘History for HistoriansPolitics for Politicians‘.

Anatolian Culture Association (AKD (6)) President Demir Önger said that it was the ‘first time’ that Europe’s Turks had ‘had the chance to raise a strong voice against an injustice done to them‘.

Herouville deputy mayor Fadime Ertuğrul Taştan’s grandparents were killed by Armenian irregulars. Thus, she explained that she attended the march ‘to honor their memory…. There was no genocide because we were in a period of war‘.  I have every sympathy with Taştan for her family’s loss; but the existence of war does not excuse war crimes, and it does not change the nature of crimes against humanity.  There was war; and there was genocide.

There will be an Armenian march to support the bill today. [Update, 24th January 2012: in the end, according to John Irish, Emile Picy and Lucien Libert, '200' Turks protested against the law; or, according to Emre Peker, 'thousands' of Turks protested, and the police kept them and an unstated number of Armenian protesters 200 metres apart.]

Footnotes

1: The French Senate’s Law Commission passed an advisory “motion of inadmissibility“. ABC and al Arabiya have English-language explanations.

2: İşçi Partisi (İP).

3: ‘Le général Paul Aussaresses a été condamné… à 7 500 € d’amende… pour “apologie de crimes de guerre“, après la publication… de son ouvrage, Services spéciaux, Algérie, 1955-1957. Les éditeurs du général, Olivier Orban, le PDG de Plon, et Xavier de Bartillat, celui [PDG] de Perrin, ont été condamnés à 15 000 € d’amende chacun.’

4: The Guardian published a ‘correction’: ‘A sub-heading then says (referring to others who died): “Forgetting the Christians who were slaughtered is nearly as bad as denying it happened…” The Armenians, of course, are Christians – Armenia adopted Christianity in the year 301.’ I can understand the Guardian being sensitive and clarifying matters, but the complainant was obviously mistaken. Saying that slaughtered Christians have been forgotten does not imply that the remembered dead were non-Christian.

5: Three years later, in 2009, the governments of Turkey and Armenia agreed to the history commission and to open borders; but still now, neither of their parliaments has approved the agreement; and free discussion of the genocide is impossible in Turkey.

6: Anadolu Kültür Derneği (AKD).

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